First, let us define culture vulture. This is the definition that I found in the Urban Dictionary:
1. culture vulture
4 up, 3 down
Someone who steals traits, language and/or fashion from another ethnic or social group in order to create their own identity.
Todd just bought himself a Fubu track suit and changed his name to Tyrone. He is such a culture vulture!
by shaniqua2 sacramento Dec 27, 2006 email it
2. Culture Vulture
12 up, 15 down
A scavenger, circling the media, looking for scraps of originality to add to their conceit. They sport eclectic styles and tastes, always recognisable as having been borrowed without adaption or refinement from elsewhere.
David Bowie is probably the best example of a successful culture vulture.
That website was put together by a Culture Vulture
For those of us into Animal Planet or any Wild Animal Kingdom show, we have seen images of these scavengers.They are often the harbingers of bad things about to happen: a sick, weak, or dying animal. They move in once the animal is dead and don’t mind taking their fill of something that is dead and decaying. Fortunately, the many cultures of the African Diaspora are always re-inventing and re-creating, so that the vultures always have fresh meat to feed off of.
My home girl just brought up this issue up in her blog. Her blog really hits home for me, because I feel as if I just “be.” But I was also a B-girl, a back packer, a houser, and breaker. Ultimately, I don’t have to prove credentials to show how my culture influenced the way I lived my life. Having a young mom, I grew up with music all around me. I was a child born in the mid 70s, and my household was alive with disco, R&B, Funkadelic, Soul, and Hip Hop. James Brown was always playing, as well as George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Earth Wind and Fire, and Marvin Gaye and so many other. My Uncle Booker-T had mad skills spitting game. Rhyming was a way they spit game. And growing up, we knew smooth talking hustlers and artists. I knew rapping from the brothas spitting game, melodic and rythmic. My dad also was a musician and he played the drums and kill some Congos. My mom and aunts used to throw basement parties (you know the kind with the red or blue light). My mom, aunts, uncles, and their friends would wake me and my cousin up to demonstrate our skills. They’d hoot and holla as we worked it out. Yeah, me and my cousin Corey partying with the grown folks. Many of the songs that are remixed today, I grew up with and they are the soundtrack of my life.
But hip hop had a special appeal. As a little kid, I followed my older brother’s footsteps trying to do everything he did. And I remember him sifting through records trying to find the hottest tracks. We shared rooms, and I remember him getting mad at me when I made a mix tape that included scratches. He had the biggest boom box and the freshest gear. Whatever kicks he rocked, I wanted some too. His boys had a brea dancing crew and they used to perform at Great America. In the mea time, I had a crew of other neighborhood rug rats and we’d pull out our cardboard too. My signature finale move was the suicide. Now that I think about it, I was probably really wack. In the early 80s, my brother used to import records from the East Coast. I can even remember getting the latest Roxanne diss album (why was there so many Roxannes), to BDP, Run DMC, and Rakim. I saw the evolution of hip hop to rap, bass music, and knew all the West Coast flavors. Sometimes when we’d travel to New Jersey we’d visit friends and family from New York.
In the early 90s, I was back at it when breaking made its come back. I remember growing up in Cali and my Filipino classmate saying that Filipinos break better than black people. And of course, I was floored. I could never understand how they could beat out in their Honda Civics, but never bob their head. Me, we wer always bobbin, good music always moves me. Another time, I went to a hip hop show and the artists noted I was the only black girl in the crowd. It was eerie… There weren’t any dance crews in the area that seemed black girl friendly. So, it would be me in the garage with my neighbor Levar on some cardboard. But it was kind of hard to pop and lock while everyone stared at my breasts (even though I wore the baggiest clothes and turtle necks).
For years, I lived hip hop. I was that hip hop Muslim girl in the South Bay. I wore my Adidas with dresses and full hijab. From working on college radio, freestyling, writing, even demonstrating to the music production class the old school 808 and 626 beat machines. It was hot with the boom-clap-boom boom boom-clap. But eventually I felt let down by the whole scene and the way it was co-opted. Years later I still feel hip hop and those hold school joints still move me.
As I write, I hear the women of hip hop play in my head (Miss Melody, One of the many Roxannes, McLyte, JJFad,…) Every once in a while I’ll dance. And I have been known to break fools off. But I forego floor manuevers and acrobatics because I’m way too old and am likely to hurt myself.
The discussion of hip hop reminds me of this MTV True Life documentary that had the nerve to air during Black History Month. Half the documentary was about a Latina sorority breaking into the Black stepping world. Even though the young woman’s attitude was emblematic of the ways non-blacks feel about any of our cultural productions, I’m not going to talk about stepping. I’m going to talk about one for of Black music, dance, language, and style–that cultural complex that we know was hip hop. I want to begin my analysis of culture vultures and critique this pattern of mimicking the cultural expression of subaltern groups. I think that they are particularly detrimental because they co-opt of the arts and culture of a dispossessed people. There are people who wish to control the discourse on black music and culture rendering it something that is no longer Black culture, but more of an urban style or something that they can consume.
I have a serious problem with those who wish to divorce the black cultural production of black from its social/political/cutural/economic context. In the name of a trend, they then adopt it as their own. And often they profess to be better at producing given culture better than the members of the original community that created it. Sometimes they even create their own sub-culture, while maintaining their privilege as members of the dominant culture. The culture that they have adopted is more like an accessory, a way of enhancing their individuality because they see their own culture as homogenous and bland.
I’m not really mad at culture vultures. You see, the co-optation of Black culture for various reasons is not anything new. But rather, it is a pattern that is repeated where ever people of the African Diaspora exist: South America, North Africa, the Carribbean, Central America, and even parts of the African continent that is dominated by Europeans or those of Mediterranean descent.
Here is one example of the problems with such forms:
Black South Americans started Tango, which began with the Buenos Aires, Argentina and Uraguay. Oh yeah, you didn’t know there were black people in Argentina.To me that is the biggest historical mystery: what happened to the tens of thousands of Africans? Well, predominately European dominant group co-opted Tango from the black Argentinians before they tried to eliminate the black population and make Argentina the little Europe of South America (by importing Spanish Basques, Italians, and Germans to the country).
My list of other musical and dance forms that began with African slaves or exlaves that have been co-opted by the dominant groups of a given society:
As in Latin America, these cultural forms become national cultures and part of the national pride. The suffering of the people who invented these cultural forms, and the creative ways that they came up with to assert their humanity, find relief, build community, and celebrate life becomes lost. Instead, those who co-opt these expressions often misunderstand the experiences of the people they are imitating.
In a discussion about Jazz, an astute author wrote:
The “white Negroes” of the 1920s projected their own desires onto black Americans, most frequently through music.
In much the same way, individuals who co-opt hip hop project their own desires, insecurities, constructions onto black Americans. There is a strange relationship of power: one of admiration and envy. In their mind, they struggle for authenticity and seek for others to validate their experience of the black sub-culture. Most black people, including myself, are happy that people enjoy our cultural forms. But there are many people of AFrican descent who want to feel as if they have their own culture without it being co-opted and commodified.
So now that I have spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on how these musical forms were so much part of my life and the way I was raised. I want to providea brief timeline of non-black folks imitating and co-oting Black cultural exprssion in North America:
Early 19th century-mid 20th century
Black Face Minstrelsy
Jazz in Black and White
And now Hip hop….
The history of Hip Hop
Davy D’s Short History of Hip Hop
I still have more reflecting to do on this topic. This is by no means comprehensive. And I’m sure that there are many people who will be pissed off by my analysis. I suggest you study some cultural theory, the history of black cultural expression, black history, and then get back at me. Make sure your intellectual game is tight though…